Believe it or not, but the official Christmas season doesn’t start until the big day itself.
Christmas Day itself marks the first day of the 12-day period that shares its name with a popular carol that goes on…and on…and on.
In Christianity this period is not about partridges in pear trees, gold rings or leaping lords, but the period between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi – otherwise known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings – on January 6, a date called Epiphany.
Some families also choose to celebrate the feast days within that period, such as St Stephen’s Day on December 26.
12 Days of Christmas lyrics
More recently the term is more closely associated with the carol in which someone declares their love by buying more and more outrageous gifts.
As a reminder, they are:
Day 1: a partridge in a pear tree
Day 2: two turtle doves
Day 3: three French hens
Day 4: four calling birds
Day 5: five gold rings
Day 6: six geese a-laying
Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
Day 8: eight maids a-milking
Day 9: nine ladies dancing
Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping
Day 11: 11 pipers piping
Day 12: 12 drummers drumming
It’s been suggested the song is originally French, and its first appearance in English was in the 1780 children’s book Mirth With-out Mischief.
If you ever find a copy, you may find that four calling birds are not there, but four colly birds are.
“Colly” is an old English term for birds as black as coal, so they’re talking about blackbirds in the original.
Also, some versions replace the partridge with a “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree”.
Where did the 12 Days of Christmas song come from?
It’s agreed amongst most historians that the song began life as a memory-and-forfeit game in the 1800s.
The rules were simple; sing all the previously sung lyrics and add the next one, but if you couldn’t remember a verse you owe your opponent a ‘forfeit’, usually a kiss or some chocolate.
Theories suggesting the song comes from when Christians were punished for worshiping openly, and used to secretly pass on their ideology – is widely debunked.
In this hypothesis, each gift represents a different aspect of their faith:
Partridge in the pear tree = Jesus Christ
Two turtle doves = Old and New Testaments
Three French hens = Faith, hope and charity
Four calling birds = Four gospels/four evangelists
Five gold rings = five books of the Old Testament
Six geese a-laying = Six days of creation
Seven swans a-swimming = Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
Eight maids a-milking = Eight beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing = Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
Ten Lords a-leaping = Ten commandments
Eleven pipers piping = Eleven faithful apostles
Twelve drummers drumming = Twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
Myth-debunkers Snopes points out a few holes in this theory though.
Firstly, there were few places in the western world over the last two centuries that have banned Christianity to such an extent, and the gifts have nothing to do with their religious equivalents.
Then there’s the fact that if celebrating Christianity and Christmas was banned, they wouldn’t be able to sing a song that includes the word ‘Christmas’ 12 times.
How much would the 12 Days of Christmas cost?
In short, a lot.
American-based financial services group PNC has been running the Christmas Price Index since 1984 that calculates the cost of all the gifts listed in the song at current market rates.
Based on last year’s prices that would set you back a cool $38,993.59 (£29,096.82) and $170,298.03 (£127,075.54) if you add add up the cumulative cost of all gifts when you count each repetition in the song.
This year buying all the gifts would be significantly cheaper because a number, such as the entertainment gifts, aren’t available due to restrictions.
The prices for all individual gifts are:
A partridge in a pear tree: $210.18 (£156.84)
Two turtle doves: $450 (£335.79)
Three French hens: $210 (£156.70)
Four calling birds: $599.96 (£447.69)
Five gold rings: $945 (£705.15)
Six geese-a-laying: $570 (£425.33)
Seven swans-a-swimming: $13,125 (£9,793.81)
Eight maids-a-milking: $58 (£43.28)
Nine ladies dancing: Not available in 2020 due to Covid restrictions (2019 price: $7,552.84 / £5,635.89)
Ten lords-a-leaping: Not available in 2020 due to Covid restrictions (2019 price: $10,000 / £7,461.95)
Eleven pipers piping: Not available in 2020 due to Covid restrictions (2019 price: $2,748.87 / £2,051.19)
Twelve drummers drumming: Not available in 2020 due to Covid restrictions (2019 price: $2,972.25 / £2,217.88)
That means in 2020 the gifts cost $16,168.14 (£12,064.59), or $105,561.80 (£78,769.69) when every repetition is counted, much cheaper than 2019.